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D. David Brown, Executive Director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Executive dancing

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Seattle, Washington

Welcomed into the spacious and well-appointed office of PNB’s Executive Director, D. David Brown, we quickly got to talking about his role as PNB’s administrative head. Visions of Sugar Plums were dancing through my head as PNB had just begun its 37 performance run of Nutcracker and we could hear music floating up from the studios through the ventilating system which provided a nice atmosphere for our discussion.

DS/FT:  Tell us a little about your background. I heard that you were a dancer...

I was encouraged by a cheerleader I wanted to date to try out for my high school production of Guys and Dolls. Soon after, I started in engineering school at the University of Toledo, kept up my dance training and found that I liked dance better, so I transferred to Butler University in Indianapolis, which had one of the few ballet-focused collegiate dance programs in the country at the time; really very professional-level training.

And then some things happened very quickly. I met my wife (Elaine Bauer) and we got married on a Saturday, graduated on a Sunday, and moved to Boston, where we both danced with the Boston Ballet. I danced from 1971-80, ending as a principal. I subsequently became Director of Production, General Manager, and then Executive Director, prior to coming to PNB four and a half years ago.

What about E. Virginia Williams?

Ah, she had a Yankee tenacity and strength of will to get things done. Although she knew when something was not quite right, she often didn’t know how to fix it which resulted in a lot of trial and error. Transitions from founders can be difficult and she and Violette Verdy were to have co-directed during the transition as Virginia was nearing retirement, but Virginia passed away suddenly and after only a few months, Violette moved on. Organizations have various tensions held in check by the force of individuals and when one of those personalities leaves, the tensions get out of balance and unexpected changes happen. It was this imbalance that led to many of the tumultuous changes around that time at Boston Ballet.

That brings us to the search process here for PNB’s new Artistic Director. Can you tell us a little about the process and how you feel it went?

We actually started this about three years ago, not too long after my arrival. Kent and Francia took the lead in determining a retirement date and wanted to make a reasoned process that would be a model for other organizations. A full year was spent in discussion on the role of the Artistic Director with trustees gathered together in an Artistic Leadership Task Force which subsequently became the core of the Search Committee. We involved other constituencies in the search process as we felt it was important to find the right person and involve people so that they would have a sense of ownership. So we had an external Advisory Panel made up of additional trustees from the Board, representatives from local funding sources such as ArtsFund, the Seattle Foundation, and Boeing, as well as a couple of long-time subscribers. Internally our Advisory Panel included several dancers, musicians, administrative department heads, and members of our volunteer groups. All five finalists were interviewed by all groups and the Search Committee reviewed all of the comments from the Advisory Panels prior to making their final recommendation. We felt this broadly inclusive process worked very well and we arrived at a clear consensus on our final choice, Peter Boal.

Our readers have a sense for what dancers, choreographers, and to some extent, what artistic directors do, but probably not a lot of people know what an executive director does. Can you fill us in a little bit?

Models differ. I like to think of it as keeping the ship safe and on course. And should there be storms, that the ship will weather them undamaged.

At a presentation you made at a Regional Dance America Festival, you talked about a certain formula you thought was ideal for endowments for arts organizations. Remind us of what that was and expand on this a bit.

I believe it’s important to build endowment principal to about three or four times the operating budget. In our case, that should be around $60 million. We are at $10 million currently which is a good start. Ballet companies tend not to be well-endowed in the U.S. Obviously, this [building endowment] is often seen as a later step, a Critical Milestone towards achieving success. Companies must first build a loyal audience and donor base, secure a working facility in which to rehearse and create work, gain control of the performing environment so that the performing schedule can be set without disruption, and then build endowment. An endowment allows a company to take more risk and evens out the uncertainties of other revenue sources.

As we and other companies evolve past the transition from founder(s) to the next generation, then it’s important that the organization becomes about the work of the organization, rather than about the work of its founder. It is important to have created a signature body of work that identifies the company. Quality has to be paramount. Are we presenting Russian, Contemporary, or European works? For PNB, it’s a middle ground between having a broad panoply of works and interspersing name recognition works to draw in new audiences. We have to bring in over 3,000 new subscriber audience members each year – this is typical of the annual attrition rate. You can’t do it by only programming new works.

Yes. I’ve been fortunate to have observed PNB from its beginning and have always thought that Kent and Francia have done what I call smart programming. Street smart, if you will. That no matter what else was on the bill, particularly in the early years, there was always at least one piece that said “ballet!” almost a kind of a pointe shoes, tutu and crown approach. They’ve really been great about bringing along and developing the tastes of PNB’s audiences.

So what’s the funding climate like now and into the future?

It has been a really tough time. We first felt the depression of the economy as corporate giving began to shrink. Part of this is due to shareholders who are first interested in return on their investment instead of corporate community involvement, particularly as headquarters of some of these firms are moved away from the communities in which they provide support. There’s also been the erosion in the investment market which has severely affected foundation giving. City, state, and county governments are feeling squeezed and the federal government is not in it really much at all. So it’s really local governments that are participating. We are fortunate to have nearly $120,000 annually from the city of Seattle, for example. In Boston it was zero! Also, the initiative processes in Washington state have had a hugely detrimental effect.

This leaves individuals. Fifty percent of our fundraising comes from individual donors. It has kept surprisingly strong during this economic down time and people continue to be generous here. In Boston the mind set was “someone else” – “they”– will take care of things. In Seattle there is much more of a sense of personal responsibility for sustaining the arts and personal responsibility for creating our quality of life.

Performances and new works provide a career for dancers, musicians and others. However our highest value may be in how people are touched by ballet, providing them with an authentic and memorable experience that stays with them for decades.

I think PNB can be more supportive of dance in Seattle. Building a strong collaborative dance community takes time and PNB should support but not dominate that community. I also believe that when audiences experience other dance companies, this raises the level of community sophistication. The opportunity for our audience to make a direct comparison with another company leads to three possibilities. PNB is not as good as, just as good as, or better than the other company. And it is always likely one of the latter two, which is great!

We hear a lot about Strategic Planning...

Why? Do you have one? [Laughter] Our strategic plan is very much about consensus building as a part of that process. It looks at strengths and weaknesses in each part of the organization; it makes assumptions about the future, and uncovers what we want to achieve going forward. At PNB we’re specifically looking to (1) achieve a higher degree of financial stability through increased fundraising and likely a significant endowment campaign 3-5 years out; (2) ensure a successful transition to new Artistic leadership by focusing on the continuity of current staff and our audience; (3) build higher visibility for the School, education and outreach; and (4) develop a multi-year budgeting process.

Kent and Francia have publicly gone on the record as desiring a larger company – more dancers, saying that certain aspects of PNB’s artistic growth is limited. For example, that there are some ballets they cannot do due to size. Your comments or observations?

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, big was better. And it helped, I think, achieve a larger, critical mass of visibility for dance. I think quality is still the priority. It’s better to have 30 of the best dancers in the world than 50 so-so dancers. There are many decisions that are trade offs in our budget process. Although we would like to do everything, it is often not possible. I think what PNB has accomplished far outweighs what it has not. We have great facilities, a great school, and a great staff and although we may want more of them, a great company of dancers.

What about touring?

Touring is about broader visibility, expanding funding sources, providing more work for the dancers, and building cohesiveness in the Company. I think the last is the only reason that can only be accomplished by touring. It strengthens the Company in ways that can’t be accomplished in other ways through collective challenges that elevate the Company.

Our last London tour cost $750K for six performances that were not well attended and received poor reviews in a theatre that was much smaller than we are used to here at home. We could have built an entirely new production for that money or provided employment for an additional 15 dancers for the entire season. We were fortunate in that the James and Sherry Raisbeck Touring Fund covered two-thirds of this.

A few years ago, PNB tried a rotating repertory format.

The rotating repertory format works for San Francisco Ballet and for NYCB but our audiences found it confusing and it was expensive. It requires a much larger company as you essentially have to be ready to perform multiple programs on the first opening night. And audience word of mouth, an important sales tool here, is rendered useless if the next weekend’s program is not what they thought they were coming to see.

What are some personal tidbits about you? I see that you have two computers side-by-side...

I’ve found that if I keep my calendar and e-mail up on one and use the other one for other jobs, it works really well. It’s actually just one computer with two screens.

Currently, I’m listening to Ron Brown’s The Da Vinci Code on tape, and at home, we have two miniature long-haired dachshunds, a 17-year old kitty, and two turtles!

Edited by Holly Messitt.

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